AUF WIEDERSEHEN!

DANUBE and RHINE BLOG 12

Friday June 21, 2013

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All good things come to an end … and our Mad Midlife river-cruise-which-became-a-coach-tour through Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary (with a side-trip to Prague in the Czech Republic) is pretty much over.

We had time to sleep-in and relax on Wednesday in beautiful Oberammergau. Located about 100kms southwest of Munich, this small alpine centre – surrounded by forested (and, in winter, snow-covered) mountains – is famous for its peace and quiet, its wood carvings and house-paintings, plus (as I’ve already mentioned) its Passion Play.

The Passion Play (in case you don’t know) dates back to the year 1633, during the Thirty Years War. After months of suffering and death due to the Plague, the villagers made a vow to God that, if they were spared, then every 10th year thereafter they would perform a play about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. There were no more lives lost to the Plague … the villagers have kept their word for more than 375 years.

We Cooneys saw the Passion Play in 2010 – a remarkable, unforgettable experience – and we hope to return in 2020, when this dramatic production (involving a cast of 2400 locals) will be performed again to packed houses and more than half-a-million visitors-plus-pilgrims from all around the world.

(If you’d like to join us in 2020, register your interest now with Roger Glynan: phone 0800 277 477 or email roger.glynan@lionworld.co.nz.)

On Wednesday afternoon, we drove north through Germany’s Black Forest region to Heidelberg – the famous university city (with its baroque Old Town and evocative half-ruined castle, built in 1214 out of red sandstone) which we first visited just two weeks ago. The main attractions this time? A welcoming bed in the Crowne Plaza City Centre Hotel … our final Midlife Madness Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant … and the chance, this morning, to return to a small bakery we found a fortnight ago that makes the best iced-chocolate and apple-strudel in the universe!

Yesterday, we motored back onto the autobahn for one last drive – to Frankfurt and the airport and our homebound flight. And, come 9:15-ish last night, we filed aboard a Singapore Airlines 777 and readied ourselves for take-off.

BUT, WAIT FOR IT …

GOOD THINGS COME IN THREES – RIGHT?

To cap-off a tour that saw (i) our much-looked-forward-to river cruise flooded out, plus (ii) a heat-wave raise temperatures on the streets where we’ve been sightseeing to a sweltering 37-40 degrees … (iii) our aircraft was still sitting PARKED-UP AT THE TERMINAL four hours after we’d buckled ourselves in!!!

Turns out a storm over crazy-busy Frankfurt Airport had delayed landings and take-offs to such an extent that we lost our place in the ‘queue’. The entire planeload of us were eventually offloaded and taken by coach to a hotel in Darmstadt (somewhere in the dark countryside out from Frankfurt – the coach driver getting lost on the way) where we finally crawled into bed around 3:30am. Yawn!

We’ve been told we’re heading back to the airport around midday, and our flight to Singapore has been rescheduled for 3pm. But we’ve got so used to things going wrong, we wouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprised if, once we finally got airborne, we ended up in Vladivostok instead of Auckland.

So we MAY be home soon … or, on the other hand, we MAY NOT. (I wouldn’t wait up, if I was you …)

In the meantime, let me just say what a truly Mad Midlife crisis adventure we’ve had! Our Kiwi fellow-travellers have been marvellous! And what stories we’ve all got to tell!

Auf wiedersehen!

Goodbye Europe, hello Godzone …”

IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?  YOU BET YOUR LIFE WE ARE!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If following this travel diary has whet YOUR appetite and got you thinking, “Hey, I’D like to go on one of these Mad Midlife adventures!” … click on the TOURS list/logos on the right of this page, and read all about our upcoming schemes and dreams. Or go to our website: http://www.johncooney.co.nz. Or phone our travel colleague and booking agent, Roger Glynan (Lion World Travel) – toll-free 0800 277 477 – or email roger.glynan@lionworld.co.nz.

PRAGUE – SALZBURG – OBERAMMERGAU

DANUBE and RHINE BLOG 11

Tuesday June 18, 2013

Believe it or not, this blog entry is coming to you from the windowsill in our 3rd-floor room in the 400-year-old Wittlesbach Hotel in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau. We got here late this afternoon after a delightfully scenic drive from Salzburg – initially through flat spic-&-span farmland, with crops and hay paddocks stretching to the horizon, then through an increasingly alpine landscape, with rugged peaks, mirror-lakes and even some snow in the distance.

I’m writing this from our windowsill (i) because there’s no room on the tiny desk, and (ii) because the view out the window of this fairytale township with its surrounding mountains and frescoed houses and church spires with bells ringing is too good to miss.

I’m having trouble remembering everything we’ve done since I last talked with you – travelling, as we have, from the Czech Republic to Austria to Germany. But bear with me while I try my hardest to bring you up-to-date.

PRAGUE: We Kiwis spent the weekend (in facts nearly three days) in this gorgeous Czech capital – and, without exaggeration, it captured our hearts. Prague has all the ingredients that a Grande Olde City requires: a castle (complete with towers, turrets and the changing-of-the-guard) … cathedrals (both Gothic and Baroque) … a riot of grand palaces … a town hall (adorned with an antique clock) … crowded pedestrian-only squares and quaint shop-filled alleyways … a (flooded) river running through the middle (the Moldaut) … picturesque bridges … plus so much more – and, frankly, we fell in love.

Highlights?

  • Our enjoyable walk’n’talk with sweet Martina through the original medieval Old Town –  with its charming houses, its Gothic Tyn Church, its huge Astronomical Clock (installed in 1410 it’s the oldest working clock in the world), its beautiful Baroque St Nicholas Church, its fascinating Jewish Quarter, Josefov (with numerous working synagogues), and its famous Charles Bridge.
  • Our second walk’n’talk through the famous Hradcanske District – including Prague Castle, the gothic St Vitus cathedral, the 15th century Vladislaus hall, and the famous Golden Lane (with its tiny, oh-so-cute shops-the-used-to-be-dwellings built into the castle walls).
  • The food, the wine, the shopping, and the free open-air music (we stood amongst vast crowds on at least two occasions, listening to a rock-band playing Beatles hits and the city’s orchestra performing a Night at the Proms).

Look, I could go on forever about Prague, but you’ve really got to experience it for yourself. So if you’ve got nothing better to do next weekend, catch a ride to the Czech Republic. You won’t be disappointed!

CESKE BUDEJOVICE: We didn’t stay here, but we did make a coffee-stop here on Monday. Although it wasn’t really a coffee-stop. This Czech town is famous for its Budweis Brewery and the Budweiser beer that’s known throughout the world – and we Kiwis got to sample the product and see how they do it.

Speaking of thirst … we have, in the past few days, moved from a flood-zone to a heat-wave-zone – stunning, hot days with temperatures climbing even higher in some of the walled-in town squares we’ve been walking around. In fact, for the record, what we’ve lost in cruising-time on the Rhine and Danube, we’ve more than made up for in near-perfect weather.

Just thought you’d like to know …

SALZBURG: We reached this musical city late-yesterday, after a leisurely in the picturesque village of Mondsee – location of the Abbey and the wedding scene in The Sound of Music.

Salzburg is where the genius Mozart (1756-91) came from, and you can hear year-round performances of his famous compositions. But the tunes we Kiwis more quickly recognised came from that beloved 1964 Hollywood extravaganza. And it was hardly surprising that certain scenes in this town – the Mirabell Gardens, the Pferdeschwemme fountain, Nonnberg Convent and the Residenzplatz – looked kind-of familiar, because these hills are still alive with the Sound of Music, and this is where Maria (Julie Andrews) and the von Trapp children sang their little hearts out.

Last night we got to do the same, at The Sound of Salzburg Dinner & Show … with Janet (not to mention any names) starting a new career in show-biz!

This morning, after snoring in Achat Plaza Zum Hirschen Hotel (go on – have a go at pronouncing it!), we explored the charming old centre of Salzburg, with its Great Festival Hall, the exquisite green-domed Domplatz, St Peter’s Abbey, and lively Getreidegasse Lane – the delightful medieval street where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born.

OBERAMMERGAU: Leaving Salzburg this afternoon, we enjoyed a scenic trek from Austria into Bavaria (southern Germany). Pristine alpine scenery flashed past on both sides as we got nearer to this mountain village – known for its quaint frescoed houses, wood carvings, Christmas shops (Christkindlmarkts), and its world-famous once-a-decade Passion Play.

But more on this magical place later …

PEOPLE NEWS: It’s been pretty quiet on the quacky-yellow-duck-front, but a couple of late entries have caught the eye of our judges:

  • Malcolm gets the ‘Chain-Saw’ Award – for keeping everyone awake on the coach today with some of the loudest snoring ever not recorded. He denies it, of course: “Couldn’t hear a thing!”
  • John N wins the hotly contested ‘Creating a Disturbance While Wetting His Pants’ Awardfor spilling hot coffee all over his crotch and smashing his cup on the floor in a Bavarian Beer House where we had dinner recently. The place was crowded – a busload of Polish tourists and a mezzanine-floor full of very happy Czech football fans – and they all erupted into cheering and loud applause when John did his thing.

TOMORROW: We have a morning at leisure in Oberammergau, then take to Germany’s highways again in search of Heidelberg. Our Mad Midlife Adventure is nearing its end, but don’t give up on us yet …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

BUDA + PEST + BRNO

DANUBE and RHINE BLOG 10

Friday June 14, 2013

(APOLOGY: SORRY FOR THE HOLD-UP – WE’VE HAD PROBLEMS EMAILING REPORTS AND PIX FROM THE CZECH REPUBLIC – ARE DOING OUR BEST TO CATCH UP.)

Budapest, first time you see it, is a big surprise. It’s actually two cities – hilly Buda and flat Pest – that grew up facing each other across the blue (currently brown) Danube, and finally got married. Budapest is the capital of Hungary (you knew that, didn’t you?) – one of those Eastern-Bloc countries that suffered under 45 years of grumpy, grey communism. And we tend to think of them as backward nations. Budapest is not only surprisingly elegant – it used to be the trendsetting city of Europe.

(Incidentally, Prague, which we’ll get to later this week, is the same – and what we now call the Czech Republic used to be one of the seven most developed nations, famous for its engineering, manufacturing and architecture.)

Anyway, we arrived in surprising Budapest a couple of days ago, and enjoyed a sightseeing tour which took in the historic Buda Castle (with some up-high views of the twin cities) … the 500-year-old Matthias Church … the famous Chain Bridge … St Stephen’s Basilica … and the distinctive Fisherman’s Bastion, from which we looked directly across the Danube at the glorious, lacy Houses of Parliament.

There were no Amadeus cruise-ships marooned here in the still-obviously-flooded waters of the Danube, so we overnighted in a nice hotel. Then, next morning, we bid a sad (and tearful) “Viszlat!” (Hungarian for goodbye) to Andreea and Mirela (the two Romanian girls from the Princess who had cared for us brilliantly from Holland to Hungary).

We also bid a sad goodbye to half our Kiwi group – who had an early-morning transfer to Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport for stage #1 of their long homebound flight.

The past two-and-a-half flood-affected weeks have not been without their challenges, but we’ve had a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience in pretty-near perfect weather (despite the high-water) – and we’ve got memories and photos to prove it!

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The rest of us (11 in total) left later that same morning in a minibus-&-trailer for the Czech Republic – juddering our way along a tired concrete highway, with autobahn stops for morning tea, lunch and loos, arriving early afternoon in Brno (pronounced Brrr-no, roll your ‘r’s) where another lovely surprise awaited us.

You’ve never heard of Brno, have you? (Come on – tell the truth!) Well, we hadn’t either, prior to planning this trip. But we ain’t gonna forget it in a hurry! The Republic’s second largest city (400,000) has a delightful 11th century historical centre. And we spent the loveliest, sunniest, carefree-est afternoon poking around in the Capuchin Crypt (where monkish mummies have been laid-out bizarrely on the floor for centuries) … the magnificent Baroque St Peter & Paul Cathedral which dominates the city … the Cabbage Market (where the locals buy their fruit-&-veg) … and the huge Freedom Square, where we were treated to a youthful big-band blasting appreciative crowds with toe-tapping jazz, and traditional-costumed locals performing colourful folksongs-and-dances.

It was brilliant – no exaggeration! And we Kiwis were fair buzzing when we checked into our rooms at the stunningly renovated Brno Palace – the best and most modern hotel in town.

NEXT THREE DAYS: We farewelled Brno this morning, and ventured out again on the juddery concrete highway – our destination this time: Prague, golden capital of the Czech Republic. The show ain’t over yet, folks, so don’t go away …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

AUF WIEDERSEHEN (GOODBYE) AUSTRIA! YO NAPOT (HELLO) HUNGARY!

DANUBE and RHINE BLOG 09

Wednesday June 12, 2013

You wouldn’t know if I didn’t tell you, but I’m writing this from a cramped seat on an air-conditioned bus in Austria. Our river cruise (you’ll remember) turned into a coach-tour not long after it started, and instead of gliding oh-so-gracefully along Europe’s famous waterways, we’ve been wrong-side-of-the-road-ing along Central European highways. We left Vienna a couple of hours ago, and crossed the border into Hungary some 50 kms back. Next stop? Budapest!

However, before we get there, with my laptop perched on my knee (and my wife complaining that my left elbow is poking in her ribs), I need to two-finger-type you an update – because several things have happened since we last spoke.

On Monday, for example, after unloading bodies and bags onto yet another parked cruise-ship (the Amadeus Dertour) tied up in the flooded township of Pöchlarn, we visited Another Big Church. And this is probably a good place to pause and issue a health warning: Don’t bother coming to this part of the world if cathedrals make you depressed, if castles give you the creeps, and if medieval old towns bring you out in a rash. Because that’s mostly what you get to see when you travel through these regions in Germany and Austria.

It was actually no hardship seeing Another Big Church on Monday, because this one (just like the others we’ve seen) was a take-your-breath-away beaut – the magnificent Benedictine abbey of Melk, one of Europe’s largest baroque monasteries. (If you don’t know what ‘baroque’ means, look it up. Come on – I’m not gonna do everything for you!)

We spent a couple of hours wandering the ornate halls, hearing the ornate history, inspecting the ornate library (a vast collection going back to when they first wrote books), and copping an eyeful inside the ornate, gold-encrusted chapel (I’ll let our photos speak for themselves).

Melk Abbey, I willingly admit, is one of my favourites. It’s located smack in the middle of the Wachau Valley – Austria’s world-famous wine-growing region. But down in the surrounding riverside town, just two days ago, things didn’t look so good: as we drove through we saw stark evidence of flood-damage, caused by the nine-metre-deep deluge that swept through here last week, drowning roads, cars, basements and crops. A sobering sight, I tell you.

Then on Tuesday (yesterday) we ‘did’ Vienna – Austria’s gorgeous, musical, elegant, historical capital! We drove through heavy rain along the majestic Ringstrasse, through the Schwarzenbergplatz, past Charles Church (Karlskirche) and the stunning Opera House … strolled through heavy rain along Kärtnerstrasse, window-shopping in the high-end stores … and escaped more heavy rain inside the awe-inspiring St Stephens Cathedral. (Yes, I know – Another Big Church – ABC!)

Then, last night, we scrubbed up, donned our best (albeit creased) bib-&-tucker, and headed to the posh Kursalon Concert Hall for a ‘Sound of Vienna’ dinner and show. I don’t know if they knew we Kiwis were coming, but those world-class musicians, opera singers and ballet dancers gave us a charming, unforgettable evening of classical Viennese waltzes, polkas, arias and operettas by Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Was it fantastic? Was it EVER! You should have seen (and heard) us doing the standing ovation!

Anyway, my laptop-efforts have conveniently filled in a couple of hours – and it now appears we’re on the outskirts of Budapest. So I’m gonna sign-off and get ready for lunch. Bye …

THIS AFTERNOON: We’re exploring the beautiful (flooded) capital of Hungary … twin cities, actually, Buda and Pest, spread over both banks of the Danube. So stay tuned …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.